Last week, I made plans to meet a few friends for drinks after they went to a Pirates game. As I hopped in the car awaiting word on where to meet them, my boy Terry hit me with details.
Me: What’s good?
Terry: We’re at the 86th Street Pub.
Me: LOL. The 86th Street Pub? How the hell you end up there?
Terry: LOL, just come through, man. I’ll tell you when you get here.
The initial “LOL” after hearing they’d made their way there had to do with two pertinent facts:
1. We—me, Terry, and the rest of the dudes I planned to hang out with that night—are Black.
2. The 86 Street Pub is one of the “Whitest” bars in the city. (How White, you ask? So White that a Polka band—Yes, Polka—happened to be performing there that night.)
Now, I don’t have a problem with White people—or White bars, Polka, and Polka-like substances—but you can understand why I thought that was an odd choice. It made sense, though, after finally getting there and meeting “Mike.”
Mike is a White guy who went to high school with Terry and a couple other members of the crew. They were at the 86 Street Pub because Mike knew about a drink special they were having and invited them there.
Also, as I soon found out, Mike is a Republican. Not an arch-conservative—He thinks the Tea Party is full of idiots—but a Republican nonetheless.
As soon as Mike learned I co-founded a website called VerySmartBrothas.com, work for EBONY.com, and frequently write about race and culture, his eyes lit up, and a strange look formed over his face. For Black people who do what I do and happen to find themselves at bars with conservative but “well-intentioned” White people who find out what you do and don’t interact with Black people that often, that look is unmistakable.
“Oh sh*t! A smart Black person! I can finally unleash all these thoughts about Obama, crime, Trayvon, democrats, MSNBC, “the Black community,” Don Lemon, and Al Sharpton! Let me buy him a round, and let’s talk about race!”
I obliged. We spoke about racism and the fallout from the Zimmerman verdict. Although I had to correct his “facts” a couple times, it was a good conversation. Actually, calling it a “good conversation” would be underselling it. Even while we were talking, I recognized how rare it is to have two people from opposite sides of the political spectrum sitting down, having a beer, and just sharing what’s on their minds. (An actual, completely organic Beer Summit!)
Yet, after 10 minutes or so, I took a gap in the conversation do to the “Well, it was nice meeting you.” thing people do when they want to end conversations, and started talking to other people. A couple minutes later, he came over and apologized, obviously thinking I left because he offended me in some way. I told him not to worry about it, and he walked away, still bothered.
What Mike failed to realize was that just because this was his rare opportunity to talk to a “smart” Black guy about those touchy race-related subjects doesn’t mean that smart Black guy actually wants to have the conversation right then and there.
Yes, I am very interested and invested in race, racism, and the effect bias has on our behavior and our culture. It literally fascinates me. Yes, I talk about those subjects frequently, and write about them even more frequently. And yes, I recognized the importance of Black and White people actually speaking to each other about this stuff instead of shouting at.
But, I came to that bar to drink, laugh, and talk about basketball, BBQ burger recipes, and the bartender’s attitude…not George f*cking Zimmerman.
This was not the first time something like this has happened to me. Just last winter, I remember silently cursing President Obama and Toure when a conversation with a few of the White guys I play basketball with suddenly segued from jump shots to Django. While I do think the term “White Privilege” may be a tad over used, I don’t think (many) White people, “well-intentioned” or not, realize they have the privilege to not have race be such a prominent ingredient in their atmosphere. Because we live and breathe it, we may not always be in the mood to do the heavy lifting of talking about it.
(Also—and this cannot be overstated—sometimes the reluctance to have those types of conversations has to do with the fact that you don’t dislike a person yet and you want to continue not disliking them. So, you end it because you know something as simple as the way they pronounce Obama can make you start disliking them.)
I can imagine a White person reading this thinking “Well, you can’t expect these types of conversations to always happen on your terms. When DO you actually want to talk about race?” To be honest, I don’t know. I know there’s no such thing as a “perfect” time. But, just assume that 11:30pm on a Wednesday night while a Black guy at a Polka bar is having drinks with his boys probably isn’t it.